Shipwreck archaeology

Oak Bluffs library offers a look into maritime history with its latest online program.

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It’s hard enough to learn about the past on dry ground, but what do you do when it’s underwater? Underwater archeology is exactly what museum director, archaeologist, and conservator Marie Kesten Zahn will be speaking about on Jan. 20 via the Oak Bluffs library: “The Science and History of Shipwreck Archaeology and Conservation.” She’ll take us on the journey following an artifact from the past into the present, focusing on the challenges of its conservation, and the effects of different underwater environments on ships and what they hold. Zahn will show us how material objects deteriorate and decay over time by looking at shipwrecks from diverse time periods throughout history, as well as spanning the world in terms of construction and final resting places.

Zahn’s entry into the field was a bit sequacious. “It’s not anything I sought to study or work with. I grew up on the Cape, so I was familiar with maritime culture, but my background is in Mayan and Aztec archeology,” Zahn says. “I studied astrophysics in Florida, and ended up working on archeology sites, mapping them using particle physics.” During grad school, Zahn witnessed underwater conservation for the first time on a project in Florida. The team had dredged up wooden canoes from lakes, and saw that some of the work on the artifacts involved a tank with electricity running through it. With her science background, Zahn mentioned that she noticed they were doing electrolysis, and was promptly put to work in the science lab. “And that’s how I ended up learning about what underwater archeology and maritime conservation was about; being in the right place at the right time,.” she recalls.

Zahn came back to the Cape in 2016 to work as an archaeologist, conservator, and science education coordinator for the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth. “I spent most of my time chatting with guests about the process of underwater conservation and how divers and archeologists find shipwrecks, and how pieces go from underwater to being able to be out in the air and on display in a museum,” she says. “It wasn’t anything I’d known a lot about. Certainly, a shipwreck from the 1800s was a lot more modern than what I’d worked with my indigenous Floridian canoes, which were significantly older than that.” And after all, she’d been used to studying ancient Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and Mayan artifacts. “But,” she explains, “the science pretty much stays the same. If you’ve got something made out of wood, you’re going to conserve it the same way, whether it’s 50 or 500 years old.”

While some might be familiar with stories about shipwrecks, Zahn will be delving into the conservation aspect of them. She says, “It’s great to have these things pulled up from the ocean, but you can’t just stick them in a case right away. There’s a lot that goes into preserving their history.”

During the program, Zahn will help us think about what an artifact is; the different conditions and different climates we find them in: warm, cold, or saltwater; those buried in mud; or those sticking out in the ocean, with sea creatures clinging to them. She’ll also raise issues about the environmental impacts on the ship, and, conversely, what impact the ship can make on the environment.

Then we’ll be going on a global tour covering different time periods and regions around the world. Zahn will likely begin with the difference between ritual burials, such as the ships the ancient Egyptians placed in their great tombs, to the ships unexpectedly lost at sea. She’ll also mention the Whydah, a slave-turned-pirate ship that went down in 1717 with all hands on board, off the coast of Cape Cod. If there’s time, Zahn says, “I’d like to talk about my favorite artifact. It’s an odd piece. It wasn’t anything that anyone had seen before, so there wasn’t a blueprint on how to preserve it. It’s a cannonball wrapped in string, and is a mystery! We just have no idea why someone would have done that.” 

Other possible locations could include England, Greece, Canada, Norway, as well as a couple in the U.S. No matter what we see, we’re sure to walk away with an appreciation for how much work goes on behind the scenes to getting shipwreck artifacts on display in a museum. Zahn also wants us to leave thinking about how we learn about history, and what historians use to study the past. 

“It’s a lot more evident with a shipwreck, but if you have a diary, will it be legible to the historians who dig it up in the future?” she says. “Or, if your cell phone is waterlogged, or no one has the right tools to charge it … it’s just a paperweight.”

Zahn’s work in science and archaeology has given her a unique perspective and appreciation for history, which she believes is a continuous narrative, and that it is of the utmost importance to make connections between the past and where we are today.

“The Science and History of Shipwreck Archaeology and Conservation” will take place on Zoom on Thursday, Jan. 20, from 7 to 8 pm at bit.ly/shipstory.

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